Their Eyes Were Watching God

Introduction of Their Eyes Were Watching God

Termed as the classic book from the Harlem Renaissance, Their Eyes were Watching God created a niche in the American African literature within the category of American literature. Zora Neal Hurston published it in 1937 when the Harlem Renaissance was at its peak. The novel presents the story of Janie Crawford, an African American girl, her growth as from a naïve young girl into a woman, along with the sufferings she goes through during her life. Despite its poor early reviews, the novel gained immense popularity with the rising awareness about the rights of the African American people in the United States.

Summary of Their Eyes Were Watching God

Janie Crawford recollects her life and the times when she was growing up. She is now in her forties and her reflection takes her back to her blossoming puberty when she receives first the attention of a local boy, Johnny Taylor, who kisses her, showing his love for her. Though, her grandmother happens to be observing them guides her about her first reactions.

Then Nanny narrates her ordeal that she was molested by her owner during her slavery. Leafy, the birth of that incident, then, becomes the center of her eyes. Therefore, she makes a successful escape during the Civil War to break the yoke of slavery. When Leafy is young and attends a school, she too is molested by her teacher. She gives birth to Janie, who is now narrating the story of her life. That terrible ordeal leaves Leafy as an alcoholic and frustrated, leaving her daughter, Janie, with Nanny.

When Nanny sees this responsibility on her shoulder, she hopes that marrying Janie to Logan Killicks, an old farmer would let her have a stable life. On the contrary to her expectations, Killicks needs a domestic assistant and not a wife, while he thinks Janie of not any help to him. Janie seeks advice from Nanny who taunts her for not being grateful to Killicks for providing her a good life having no financial worries. However, Nanny soon breathes her last, leaving Janie alone in this world. When Janie sees that there is nobody to ask her about her actions, she finds Joe Starks, a talkative person with whom she elopes to Florida to live in an African American town of Eatonville. Joe Starks becomes the mayor of the town on account of his glib tongue and hard work. However, Janie rather feels that she has become a trophy instead of his wife. He not only abuses her but also begins to insult her and joke about her in front of people. Although Janie does not leave her, she hates him. During an accident, instead of helping him, she watches him die before her eyes. Later, she gives him a proper and respectable burial.

When men of the town come across the rich widow of Joe Starks, they offer their hands but Vergible Woods who is famously called Tea Cake captures her heart. Although his initial treatment is very loving and kind, Janie becomes enamored with his musical quality and loving attitude and soon leaves Eatonville to Belle Glade to marry him. When life takes its routine, the sourness creeps in their relationship as Tea Cake does not have regular work to afford her household expenses. However, she is satisfied with the relationship but soon a hurricane hits the area hard, making all others tun for their lives. During this survival struggle, a rabid dog bites Tea Cake when he tries to save Janie. In his fit of madness, he tries to kill Janie but she shoots him.

Soon the trail becomes the talk of the town, where white women come to support Janie. She wins her acquittal but arranges a good funeral for her dead husband. Although friends of her dead husband permit her to stay in Everglades, she returns to Eatonville and raises rumors in the town with her open and liberal outlook. The story ends with the note of her conversation with her former friend, Phoeby.

Major Themes in Their Eyes Were Watching God

  1. Financial Security: The novel shows the financial deprivations of the African American community through Nanny’s character. When she finds that farmer Killicks is willing to take Janie in marriage, she feels her granddaughter will be financially secured. She also rebukes and taunts her saying that she should not be ungrateful. Janie, however, does not find it soul-satisfying and leaves Killicks and elopes with Joe. Joe is a hardworking but rude person, who takes her to Eatonville, making her a rich lady of the town. Therefore, financial security is of paramount importance for Nanny, though, not for Janie.
  2. Power: Power works in different ways in the novel, as Nanny has power over Janie to get her married. While her new husband, Killicks, too, exercises his power of money. When she becomes too dependent on him, she leaves him for Joe Starks, who uses the power of persuasion but when it comes to physical power by the end, she kills Tea Cake to stop his suffering after he is bitten by a rabid dog. Therefore, the thematic strand of power echoes throughout the novel.
  3. Love: The theme of love echoes at different places in the novel. Although Nanny finds love, yet she does not find it sincere, for she has to look for financial security. Therefore, she prefers financial security for her granddaughter to love, but Janie does not accept it and leaves Logan Killicks for Joe Starks, and finally for Tea Cake after his death. She even shoots Tea Cake dead, out of pity and love, when he poses a threat to her life. Therefore, power is a minor thematic strand in the big scheme of things of this novel.
  4. Sexuality: The theme of sexuality is tied to the character of Janie when she meets Johnny the first time. Zora Neal Hurston has demonstrated this theme in the novel through vegetative blossoming. Nanny knows the power of this feature and uses it to the advantage of Janie to win the favor of Logan Killicks. Janie also uses the same sexuality to get closer to Joe and later Tea Cake.
  5. Gender: The gender role, its significance, and the role of the female is another theme of the novel. In fact, the novel revolves around the feminine gender in that Nanny knows that she has suffered due to her being a female, she makes Janie aware of her significance and its use in exploiting the patriarchal structure comprising Logan, Joe, and Tea Cake. Although she successfully hooks Joe after leaving Logan, she fails to save Tea Cake who becomes a victim of a rabid dog’s bite. She returns to her original role of weaving tales with Phoeby.
  6. Independence: The novel shows the desire of Nanny to make Janie independent by arranging her marriage to Logan Killicks. Though, her concept of independence is quite different, for she, as a human being, also needs emotional support and independence. That is why she elopes with Joe but ends up meeting Tea Cake after his death. Despite this far journey in her life, the feminine desire to shed off the shackles of the patriarchy does not make her a meek creature and she kills Tea Cake in the end when she sees him as a threat to her life.
  7. Racial Identity: The novel shows racial identity in that Nanny knows that the life of her granddaughter, Janie, as an African American girl, is not secure on social and as well as financial grounds. This identity goes with Nanny, with Leafy, and then with their third generation, Janie Therefore, she prepares her granddaughter about the importance of financial status and its impacts on the racial identity of a person. This also becomes clear through the obsession of Mrs. Turner.
  8. Judgment: The novel shows the theme of the people being judgemental in different ways. Janie feels that people talk about her status, appearance, and acts. When she returns and narrates her long tale to Pheoby, the people of the area gossip and spread rumors about her past.
  9. Money: The novel shows the theme of labor and the importance of money in life through Nanny’s life, her daughter Leafy and then Janie. Nanny, specifically, knows the value of money when she marries Jane to Logan. Her main concern is Janie’s financial strength and not her desire for happiness.

Major Characters in Their Eyes Were Watching God

  1. Janie Crawford: Partly white and partly African American, Janie Crawford is the daughter of Leafy and Nanny’s granddaughter. Janie marries Logan Killicks on the insistence of her grandmother, Nanny, but she leaves him for Joe Starks for his gift of conversation and persuasive power. However, feeling suppressed to her femininity, she becomes fed up of his limitations when they succeed in Eatonville where after Joe’s demise, she finds a bubbling young man, Tea Cake, who afterward tries to kill her when a rabid dog bites him. But she kills him with a pistol in self-defense. Later, the white women gather around to testify in her favor to assist her to win freedom after which she returns to her old town.
  2. Nanny Crawford: She is the grandmother of the protagonist, Janie, and also her guide and guardian. She reproaches her for being thankless to Logan Killicks when she complains of discomfort and dissatisfaction. She sets the course of life of Janie, thinking financial support and strength count much in life, oblivious to the fact that love plays an important role.
  3. Joe Starks: Joe Starks plays an important role in the novel. At first, Janie loves him and elopes with him, leaving Logan Killicks, the landowner and her first husband. However, he is not only ambitious but also hard-working and establishes a good business in Eatonville where he reaches the post of the mayor of the town and wins popularity and honor among the locals. Yet, in terms of femininity, he is a traditional patriarch and does not let Janie go freely in the public. His role, however, ends, when he breathes his last after an illness.
  4. Vergible Woods or Tea Cake: Woods or Tea Cake is an interesting character who sees Janie as a rich widow and himself a pauper worth of her to make his life good. An artist, engaged in gambling, he knows how to exploit a woman and situation. However, bad luck occurs when a rabid dog bites him by the end of the novel after which he tries to harm Janie under the influence of rabies, but she shoots him dead.
  5. Logan Killicks: The problem of Logan Killicks is that he is complaining about Janie that she does not thank him for providing comfort and financial security to her. However, he is oblivious that as a sensuous young girl, she also needs love, tenderness, and kindness, the reason that she becomes fed up and abandons him in favor of Joe Starks, who is very sweet in his talking but very hard in dealing.
  6. Leafy: Leafy is Nanny’s daughter and Janie’s mother and appears in the novel for a short time, leaving very strong impressions. As the progeny of Nanny, she becomes the victim of abuse by her teacher and after giving birth to Janie, she disappears.
  7. Pheoby Watson: She appears in the beginning and by the end and seems a very helping hand to others. She advises the protagonist, Janie, to abandon her reckless life but supports her through thick and thin. She is the main interlocutor of her narrative.
  8. Annie Tyler: Annie, the rich window, runs with the man younger than her. Janie is often found of making a comparison of her life with that widow when she also runs with Woods or Tea Cake.
  9. Johnny Taylor and Mrs. Turner: These are two minor characters; the first one leads to sexual awakening in Janie and the second one prefers caucasian features and being white. Both play an important role in the events in the life of Janie.

Writing Style of Their Eyes Were Watching God

True to her style, Zora Neal Hurston has used colloquial or conversational style in the novel. It shows the true accent of that the African Americans of the South existing during the early period of the 20th century. Although the narrator becomes quite poetic at times, the conversation intervenes at places to make it a representative of the African American community. Shortened forms, broken syntax, simple diction, ironic, and sometimes somberly tragic tone and highly figurative language have made its style unique. It also shows the rhythm and specific musical quality of the African American accent.

Analysis of Literary Devices in Their Eyes Were Watching God

  1. Action: The main action of the novel comprises Janie Crawford’s search for true love in racially divided America. The rising action occurs when Janie runs away from Logan with Joe Starks to Eatonville. The falling action occurs when she kills Tea Cake when he suffers from rabies, by the end of her defense, and is finally released by the jury on the intervention of the white women on her behalf.
  2. Anaphora: Their Eyes were Watching God shows the use of anaphora. For example,
    i. It was the time for sitting on porches beside the road. It was the time to hear things and talk. (Chapter-1)
    ii. Big Lake Okechobee, big beans, big cane, big weeds, big everything. (Chapter-14)
    The sentence shows the repetitious use of “it was the time” and “big.”
  3. Antagonist: Their Eyes were Watching God shows the search for self or the circumstances as the main antagonist in Janie’s life. As she meets and flees with different men and sadly kills Tea Cake, her last husband. However, she does seem to fit with any one of them; although they all seem, antagonists, the real antagonist of the novel is her search for happiness and satisfaction.
  4. Allusion: There are various examples of allusions given in the novel.
    i. “Dat mornin’ on de big plantation close to Savannah, a rider come in a gallop tellin’ ’bout Sherman takin’ Atlanta. (Chapter-2)
    ii. Freein’ dat mule makes uh mighty big man outa you.
    Something like George Washington and Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln, he had de whole United States tuh rule so he freed de Negroes. (Chapter-6)
    iii. They had him up for conversation every day the Lord sent. (Chapter-6)
    iv. Chink up your cracks, shiver in your wet beds and wait on the mercy of the Lord. (Chapter-18)
    v. When God had made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Then after that some angels got jealous and chopped him into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. (Chapter-9)
    The first two allusions are related to the American Civil War characters, while the latter is related to Christianity.
  5. Conflict: The are two types of conflicts in the novel. The first one is the external conflict that is going on between Janie and different men such as Logan Killicks, then Joe Starks, and finally with Tea Cake. Then there is an internal conflict that is going on between Janie and the prevalent value of the culture.
  6. Characters: Their Eyes were Watching God presents both static as well as dynamic characters. Janie Crawford is a dynamic character as she goes through a transformation during her marriage spree. However, the rest of the characters do not see any change in their behavior, as they are static characters such as Tea Cake, Nanny, Leafy, or Logan Killicks.
  7. Chiasmus: The novel shows the use of chiasmus in the following example,
    i. Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. (Chapter-1)
    The sentence shows the use of chiasmus as the first clause has been reversed for impacts.
  8. Climax: The climax takes when Janie and Tea Cake come face to face and Janie feels that if she does not shot at Tea Cake she is going to die at his hands.
  9. Foreshadowing: The novel shows the following examples of foreshadowing:
    i. Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some, they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. (Chapter-1)
    ii. The town had a basketful of feelings good and bad about Joe’s positions and possessions, but none had the temerity to challenge him. They bowed down to him rather, because he was all of these things, and then again he was all of these things because the town bowed down.  (Chapter-8)
    These quotes from Their Eyes were Watching God foreshadow the coming events; the first one about the difficult times for Janie and the second for her husband, Jody or Joe Starks.
  10. Hyperbole: Hyperbole or exaggeration occurs in the novel at various places such as:
    i. Every tear you drop squeezes a cup uh blood outa mah heart. Ah got tuh try and do for you befo’ mah head is cold. (Chapter-2)
    ii. If you can stand not to chop and tote wood Ah reckon you can stand not to git no dinner. ’Scuse mah freezolity, Mist’ Killicks, but Ah don’t mean to chop de first chip. (Chapter-4)
    The above sentences are hyperboles, and also they show how Janie is using this device when she is in different situations in her first marriage.
  11. Imagery: Imagery means to use images such as given in the novel:
    i. It was a cityfied, stylish dressed man with his hat set at an angle that didn’t belong in these parts. His coat was over his arm, but he didn’t need it to represent his clothes. The shirt with the silk sleeveholders was dazzling enough for the world. (Chapter-4)
    ii. The great clap of laughter that they have been holding in, bursts out. Sam never cracks a smile. “Yeah, Matt, dat mule so skinny till de women is usin’ his rib bones fuh uh rub-board, and hangin’ things out on his hockbones tuh dry. (Chapter-6)
    iii. Morning came without motion. The winds, to the tiniest, lisping baby breath had left the earth. Even before the sun gave light, dead day was creeping from bush to bush watching man. (Chapter-18).
    These examples show different images taken from the novel such as the images of sound, color, and nature.
  12. Metaphor: Their Eyes were Watching God shows good use of various metaphors. For example,
    i. So Janie waited a bloom time, and a green time and an orange time. But
    when the pollen again gilded the sun and sifted down on the world she
    began to stand around the gate and expect things. (Chapter-3)
    ii. She knew the world was a stallion rolling in the blue pasture of ether. (Chapter-3)
    iii. Nature got so high in uh black hen she got tuh lay uh white egg. Now you tell me, how come, whut got intuh man dat he got tuh have hair round his mouth? Nature!”(Chapter-6)
    iv. Rumor, that wingless bird, had shadowed over the town. (Chapter-8)
  13. Motif: Most important motifs of the novel are community, racism, religion, and family.
  14. Narrator: The novel is narrated by a third person narrator, who is Zora Neal herself.
  15. Personification: The novel shows the use of personification at several places. For example,
    i. Business was dull all day, because numbers of people had gone to the game. (Chapter-10)
    ii. The sounds lulled Janie to soft slumber and she woke up
    with Tea Cake combing her hair. (Chapter-11)
    These examples show business and sounds as having human attributes.
  16. Protagonist: Janie is the protagonist of the novel. The novel starts with his entry into the world when she is narrating her tale and ends it at the same place.
  17. Rhetorical Questions: The novel shows good use of rhetorical questions at several places. For example,
    i. Look like he took pleasure in doing it. Why couldn’t he go
    himself sometimes? (Chapter-6)
    ii. Now and again she thought of a country road at sun-up and considered flight. To where? To what? Then too she considered thirty-five is twice seventeen and nothing was the same at all. (Chapter-7)
    This example shows the use of rhetorical questions posed but different characters not to elicit answers but to stress upon the underlined idea.
  18. Setting: The setting of the novel is the rural area of Florida, specifically, Eatonville.
  19. Simile: The novel shows good use of various similes. For example,
    i. But mostly she lived between her hat and her heels, with her
    emotional disturbances like shade patterns in the woods—come and gone with the sun. (Chapter-7)
    ii. His prosperous-looking belly
    that used to thrust out so pugnaciously and intimidate folks, sagged like a
    load suspended from his loins. (Chapter-7)
    iii. But even these things were running down like candle grease as time moved on. (Chapter-8)
    These are similes as the use of the word “like” shows the comparison between different things.
  20. Situational Irony: The situational irony exists in the novel at the point where Janie marries Tea Cake and comes to the point about love. Both pay attention to each other and understand each other but then she shoots him dead, as he forces her or better to say his disease, rabies, forces her to kill him.